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Glass-Fiber Cord Maker Extends RFID's Benefits to Its Customers

NGF Europe is writing RFID data on tags attached to the spools of glass-fiber cord that it makes, allowing the company to track production, and enabling its automotive customers to access product information encoded to the tags.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 08, 2010After nearly four years of using radio frequency identification at its own facility, NGF Europe (NGFE), a British manufacturer of specialized glass-fiber cord products, has begun writing data to its tags, so that its customers themselves can read them in order to learn more about the product.

At NGFE's manufacturing plant and warehouse in St. Helens, England, the company has been employing 13.56 MHz passive RFID tags, complying with the ISO 15693 standard, to track the glass-fiber cord as it is manufactured, wound on spools, stored and then shipped to tier-one automotive companies, to be built into items such as timing belts. The use of RFID provides the firm with visibility into work-in-progress and inventory. But perhaps most important, it also ensures that the spools—which are wrapped in multiple layers of thin, black plastic before they are shipped—are, in fact, the product they are believed to be. By knowing exactly which product is on each spool, even after it is wrapped, the company, as well as its customers, can verify that no mistakes have been made.

NGFE uses handheld interrogators to read the tags attached to spools of cord that have been wrapped in protective black plastic (shown here with part of the plastic wrapping removed for illustration purposes).

The glass fibers embedded in the cord act as a strengthener in certain rubber products, such as timing belts used in automotive engines. NGFE sells the cord to automotive-parts manufacturers, in long strands wrapped around spools. In the automotive industry, the use of the proper glass-fiber cord is critical. The cord is manufactured in a range of diameters, each with different degrees of twisting and materials, and every permutation provides the cord with distinct performance characteristics. When the cord is on a spool, it can be difficult to determine one type from another. Once incorporated into a product such as a timing belt, however, an incorrect glass fiber cord can cause that product to fail.

Prior to adopting an RFID solution four years ago, NGFE's staff printed a bar-coded serial number onto a label attached to the spool itself. That label could then be scanned to verify the type of cord on that particular spool, until the point at which the spool must be wrapped with black plastic, a total of 15 times over, to ensure the cord is not damaged by ultraviolet light and humidity. With the package wrapped, however, the spool's bar code was no longer visible, and thus could not be scanned.

When a spool of cord was prepared for shipping, explains Peter Lai, NGFE's assistant production manager, its bar code was first read to confirm it was the correct type, after which the plastic was wrapped around it and a second printed bar-code label was attached to the plastic wrap's exterior, indicating the type of cord on the spool. However, there was the potential for error. Labels on the wrap could often be damaged or lost, at which point, since the label on the spool itself was obscured by the black plastic wrap, the only way to verify the product on that spool was to remove the wrapping and read the underlying bar-coded label. In contrast, an RFID tag is readable directly through the wrap.

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